When I was in 3rd grade I played soccer for a single season, I have two memories of my soccer days.
1. I was playing as a defender and the ball was kicked down to our side and rolled out of bounds...or so I thought. The ball actually rolled outside the penalty area line, which I took as the end of the field, it was still in play as I stand there wondering why the whistle wasn't blown and as the other team came in to take the ball to a goal.
2. I was put in as goalie shortly after that mishap and learned that I never wanted to play soccer again.
Fast forwarding to February 2016, I was contacted by a Canadian news outlet to shoot the Montreal Impact a, Major League Soccer (MLS) team, when they were down in St. Petersburg for a training camp during their offseason. Since I have finally healed from the traumatic scars of my youth soccer days, I accepted the job and ever since I have been itching to shoot additional sporting events. This past Saturday I found myself with an opportunity to shoot the Tampa Bay Rowdies, a professional soccer team in the North American Soccer League (NASL).
Credential confirmation came via the Rowdies front office the day before game day (to no fault of theirs), which left me less than 24hrs to do some homework on the team and shooting logistics. I am one of those guys that insist on removing the "unknowns", I absolutely hate going into a shoot without some sort of plan. Since the last time I shot soccer it was only a practice and it took place mid-day, where the low light was not an issue, I felt the need to do some research.
First, I wanted to determine how much gear to bring. I wasn't shooting on deadline, therefore, I didn't need to bring my laptop to upload photos at the stadium. However, I did opt to bring a USB to iPhone adapter which allowed me to transfer photos from my camera to my iPhone, which is a cool device to use to get your professional shots on Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook during or shortly after the game when all the fans are posting selfies and whatnot using the same hashtags and location tags...eFame galore!
Next I planned my camera and lens line up for the night. I prefer to have as little gear as possible on my person, this allows for the easiest movement and less time fumbling around with switching cameras or lenses thus capture more of the action. However, since I have yet to shoot a soccer match at night I knew I wanted to have versatility. I knew from shooting the training day that I would want to bring my 400mm 2.8 with 1.4x extender on one body, and the 70-200mm 2.8 on another body. This left me with figuring out if I should bring a 16-35 f/4 versus a 24-70 f/2.8 for wide-angle shots. The 16-35 would give me the super wide angle shots I like but I am losing the ability to shoot at a lower ISO at the higher aperture. I started to debate myself, "would the 24-70 be too close, it's heavy and a little more bulkier than the 16-35 too, do I even need to bring a wide angle lens....sigh".
These are the type of questions I ask myself before a shoot, especially ones where I can't or don't want to have the extra gear on my person. Even though I usually bring a set of back up options that I leave in the trunk of my car, it stIll means having to walk 10 minutes to the parking garage to change out equipment and it's mostly reserved for if a camera or lens is damaged or fails, I can switch out gear without losing the entire night by leaving gear at home. After several hours of going back and forth with myself, I opted for a 16-35mm f/4 and brought my Speedlite in my vest's back pocket in case the low light became an issue. I figured the majority of the wide angle shots I would take would be before the game when the sun was still providing enough light or after the game where I could attach the flash if needed. From what I could tell there wouldn't be much time to move into the stands to get fan shots with the wide angle lens without missing the action on the field.
The next area of research I wanted to do was logistics, things like what time does Will Call open up, how early do fans show up, where the best place to park...where's the second best place to park in case that lot is full, how much time will it take me to walk from either lot, where should I shoot from, who's the star players. All things I wanted some sort of plan for. I spent a good part of my day watching YouTube videos on the Rowdie's channel, not to watch the actual game but to look on the sidelines to see where the photographers were positioned.
After getting a good sense on where I wanted to position myself based on those videos and from my previous shooting experience with the Montreal Impact, I moved onto learning as much as I could about the team. Who were the fan favorites? It didn't take me long to learn that the goal keeper Matt Pickens was going to be the man to watch tonight. He just came off a big win against FC Edmonton where he blocked a penalty shot in the final moments of the match to give the Rowdies the win. Also, the Rowdies website said they were giving away free Matt Pickens' beard cutouts to the first 1,500 fans entering Al Lang stadium for Saturday's game...he has a great beard by the way. I also wanted to keep an eye on Tommy Heinemann who gave the Rowdies the only goal in the previous game.
Kick off wasn't scheduled until 7:30 P.M. but the Will Call window opened up at 4:30 P.M., and after browsing some fan pages I learned tailgaters would start as early as 4:00 P.M. With a little help from the Twitter community (Thanks Spencer!) I learned that most of the crowd does not funnel in until shortly before kick off, therefore I planned on arriving just as the gates open 90 minutes prior to kick off, 6:00 P.M. I roll into downtown St. Pete and to the stadium right on time, and find the main lot is sold out, the good news is I knew where the backup lot was. It was about 5-10 minutes further than the main lot but I had allowed the extra time, and since I knew exactly what gear I needed on my person I didn't have to stress about making that call from the lot with the fear of having to make the walk back to switch out gear.
Will Call was a breeze, walk up, hand id, get media pass, walk 5 feet and boom I'm through security and ready to work. I walked onto the field, set my long lens & monopod down in the spot I scoped out via YouTube. I would start the game from the Rowdies goal side, some of my research always told me a lot of the action would be coming towards the Rowdies goal since the opposing team was undefeated, the odds were in their favor. Shortly before kickoff the players walked out to the field each accompanied by local children. I took this time to get some shots of the team walking out and followed them onto the field for the National Anthem. During which time I only brought my 16-35mm with me, leaving my 70-200mm and 400mm on the sidelines. I positioned myself near the mascot Pelican Pete and grabbed some majestic shots of him with the sun setting behind him. Very nice!
After the National Anthem was sung I moved off the field and to my position for the kick off. The ball drops, we're underway! I start off with the 400mm but realize quickly that if the play is at the other end of the field the 1.4x is required to somewhat fill the frame. I also knew that the ambient light that was remaining was disappearing quickly, if I wanted to use the extender, I'd have to use it now. I put on the extender and start lining up the action, click, click, mostly back shots, blah. A few more exchanges of the ball and they are heading towards me, click, click, click, click...shit I'm cutting off their legs, they are too close now. I drop the 400mm and pick up the secondary body with the 70-200mm, as I bring it up to my face they clear the ball to the far end of the field...whelp back to the long lens.
This back and forth continued throughout the night, trying to anticipate the action was a mix between watching the players and listening to the crowd, they knew when something was about to happen. As dusk turned into night I continued to bump my ISO, trying to keep my shutter speed at or near 1/1000th of a second to freeze the action and my aperture at 2.8 to blur out the background and let as much light in as possible. At one point I found myself creeping towards an ISO of 3200, this is getting close to the area where the amount of noise becomes noticiable and requires post editing smoothing to minimize. This is somewhat of an uncharted area for me too, I usually shoot during the day for motorsports with some races going into the night where I usually slow my shutter to allow more light in. I rarely go over ISO 500 and very rarely to 1000 or higher, so naturally as I continue to bump up the ISO I am zooming in to check noise. I may have even sneaked a peak at the team photographer's settings to confirm I wasn't the only one shooting in the danger ISO zone.
Speaking of which, Matt May, the Rowdies photographer was my idol for the game. I browsed his portfolio earlier to get creative inspiration while I attempted to dissect his shots...which lens did he use, where was he shooting from, what were his settings. Once you shoot enough, you can get a pretty good idea of those answers just by looking at a photo. As the game progressed I would look up every now and then and play "Let's Find Matt". There's no shame in learning from the best, and simply watching a photographer with the knowledge that is gained only through years of shooting the same thing over and over again is priceless. I've had plenty of photographers follow me around Sebring as I showed them the money shots, that's a track I've shot monthly for several years. I literally have zero planning when it comes to that track, I know what gear I need, the corner worker's names, everything to produce awesome photos without losing a minute of sleep before the event. In fact, Matt if you ever want a play by play guide to Sebring International Raceway, I got you covered buddy!
Of the 2,176 photos I shot on Saturday, I ended up with 642 keepers on a first pass review, of which I would say maybe a dozen are actually good shots, very few great shots. However, just like motorsports (or any type of photography) the more you shoot the better your shots get and the more keepers you end up with. All in all the night was a success, I didn't break any gear or take a ball to the face, I met some new people, high-fived a pelican, and got some soccer shooting experience under my belt. Now the countdown begins until the next match.
I leave you with some of my favorite shots from the night, enjoy!
I had the GoPro mounted on top of my camera throughout the night capturing video as I took photos. The edited video will be released in the near future to give you the full experience of shooting a NASL game, with supporting photos and EXIF info. Stay tuned!